A crying shame
Women could use a little of the shameless confidence men take for granted
By May 2015
The letter was kind of magnificent. It came by post (a declining tradition; these days such missives are much more likely to plop balefully into my ABC inbox) and was marked with the high-end Melbourne address of the writer, a man with whom I was not previously acquainted. Subject, in bold: “THE WIFE DROUGHT.”
“Dear Ms Crabb,” it began.
“I glanced at your new book a few weeks ago while waiting at a Canberra airport. I have decided to write to you because, more recently, I read your article on Mark Latham and Lisa Pryor and realised that I had not misjudged the essence of your book.”
There followed a densely argued page in which the correspondent explained to me, mentioning several examples from his own life, why my book about men, women and work–life balance was off the mark.
Now, he is completely entitled to write such a letter and mount such arguments. He might even be right, at least in the eyes of some. But what fascinated me about this letter was its lead-with-the-chin composition.
When a person is writing to an author to critique her most recent work, what is it that gives the correspondent sufficient confidence to begin with a declaration that their experience with the work in question is an airport newsagency browse followed by the perusal of a vaguely related 800-word newspaper column?
What is it? And, more importantly, where can I get some?
I remember writing The Wife Drought, a year ago. I took leave from the ABC and wrote until late every night when the children were asleep, huddled over statistics and despairingly reading the work of experts, knocking off only to sweat through terrible panic dreams in which Barbara Pocock or some other luminary of social research read through my chapter about work–life balance and then, with kind eyes, slowly shook her head.
I felt amateurish and out of my depth. When I fearfully sent a sample chapter to a clever friend of mine to read, and she didn’t write back within the hour or then return any of my fevered calls, I decided that it was because she couldn’t face telling me how bad it was, and burst into tears. (It turned out that her phone had run out of battery.) When I submitted the manuscript to the publisher, I appended a formal letter apologising for how rubbish it was.
The rebuttable presumption of my own underqualification is – for me – just about the most expensive thing about writing. For any piece of work, the cost is not just the writing-it, but also the hating-it, and the long, difficult period over which one is helped to the surface, usually by some patient editor or other who no doubt gets sick of this sort of thing. One of the most ignoble aspects of this entire process is that once a few people I respect say the piece is OK, I generally perk up and start thinking it’s actually pretty good. I despise myself for this.
All of which is why this fellow’s letter made me – after an initial twinge of crossness – laugh in admiration. Whoever you are, friend, you certainly have a pair, I thought. I didn’t write back to him. I wasn’t at all certain he was actually seeking my input, and besides which, I reasoned, there were already about 70,000 of my reasonably priced words still knocking around of which he had yet to avail himself.
In late February, Senator Ian Macdonald, who chairs the Senate committee looking at Professor Gillian Triggs’ report into the welfare of detained children, told Triggs he disapproved of her work so thoroughly that he hadn’t read it. “I haven’t bothered to read the final report because I think it is partisan,” Macdonald informed those attending the hearing. Again, I do not contest the senator’s right to hold that opinion of the work. I just think it’s interesting to live on the same planet as anyone who would prosecute a certain view while actively adducing direct evidence of their underqualification to do so.
There is a shamelessness gap operating here. In order to speak convincingly, one must first feel qualified to speak. But qualifications are subjective, a matter of self-assessment. And there is an abundance of research indicating that when called upon to self-assess, men give themselves the benefit of the doubt much more readily than women do. Men are more likely to overestimate their IQ, their suitability for a job, the bulletproof appeal of their case for more money. In her 2007 book Women Don’t Ask, Linda Babcock is mystified by the 7.6% pay gap between the starting salaries of her male and female master’s graduates, until she learns that 57% of the men had asked for more money when offered their first job, but only 7% of the women had done the same.
Shamelessness, however, isn’t just about pushing yourself that little bit further than is probably strictly appropriate when applying for a job. More broadly, it can be about whether you open your mouth at all.
Julia Baird, who edited the Sydney Morning Herald’s opinion pages between 2001 and 2005 and was an editor at Newsweek between 2007 and 2011, recalls a marked difference between her experience of male and female contributors.
“The vast bulk of unsolicited items come from men,” she says. “I’d say at least 80%. You very often have to call and pursue women, who then want more time or decry a lack of expertise. It has been the same in every media job I have worked in, radio, TV and print: men proffer opinions readily, with varying degrees of knowledge, while women hesitate, doubt themselves and often suggest someone who might be better qualified.”
One of my favourite things about Baird is that when, several years ago, her editor suggested she write a biography of Queen Victoria, Baird didn’t squeal that she knew nothing of the Victorian era or suggest another more worthy author. She went away, read deeply for six months, decided there was something she could offer, pitched successfully to Random House in New York, and is now finishing a book certain to be a pearl.
I speak at a lot of events – conferences, lunches, charity functions, and the like. Usually on topics about which I do know something. But I always notice the difference between women’s events and business ones, where the audience tends to be more male. At female-dominated events I get asked things. At male-dominated ones, I’m much more likely to be told things.
One evening earlier this year, I addressed a gathering of lady lawyers in Sydney on the subject of my book, and I hung around afterwards for a chat. One of the lawyers, a partner in her firm, came up to ask about some research or other. She mentioned an interesting article she’d read recently in Harvard Business Review. And then she gave me about a minute and a half of apology about name-dropping Harvard Business Review, explaining that she didn’t want to sound like a big-noter and in fact she never read Harvard Business Review but a friend had forwarded it to her and so on.
While she got this off her chest, I sipped my drink and thought about the fabulous anecdote with which the American writer Rebecca Solnit kicked off her famous 2008 essay ‘Men Explain Things To Me’.
Solnit was invited to a house party in Aspen with a crowd of older, wealthier people she didn’t really know. “So … I hear you’ve written a couple of books,” said her host, grandly, towards the end of the party. “What about?” Solnit mentioned her most recent work on Eadweard Muybridge, the 19th-century English photographer famous for his stop-motion depictions of people and animals. Her host interrupted her as soon as he heard the photographer’s name. “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?” he asked, before launching into an account of this book’s brilliance. As he held forth, Solnit worried that she had somehow missed a major publishing event in her field. Solnit’s friend Sallie, meanwhile, had to say “That’s her book” three or four times before the message sank in for the chap, who hadn’t actually read any Muybridge books at all. He’d just perused an account of one in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, which did, in fact, turn out to be Solnit’s book. Solnit records that he was “stunned, speechless – for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing, and we’ve never really stopped.”
Solnit’s essay spawned a new term, the now-ubiquitous mansplaining, which is when a man explains to a woman something that she already knows, while the woman works out how best to respond politely.
What I was hearing from my new lawyer friend and Harvard Business Review non-reader, however, was something quite different. She was ladysplaining – apologising for something she did actually know. Try as I might, I just cannot imagine a male partner in a law firm doing the same thing.
But instinctive self-deprecation isn’t just a charming social device. It’s possible that when women devalue their own knowledge and experience they are simply getting in before someone else does.
In March, the share price of Ardent Leisure dipped by 20% on the announcement that Deborah Thomas had been appointed CEO. Analysis suggested the fears were for her lack of operational leisure experience. (One hopes this drew a wry smile from Thomas, who has spent most of her women’s-magazine-editing life answering to male executives who have scant operational experience in being female.)
Thomas is not alone; US research shows investors are less likely to invest in initial public offerings of companies with female CEOs. And yet, in a recent study, Boston trading platform Quantopian found that female Fortune 1000 CEOs achieved well over double the equity returns of their male counterparts, on average.
A similar study in Australia is not feasible because the numbers of female CEOs are so low. (As Peter Martin noted for Fairfax in March, more ASX 200 companies in Australia are run by men called Peter than are run by women.)
But the pay gap between men and women at management level in Australia is as much as 45%.
As canny investors know, anything undervalued is an opportunity. And while the shamelessness gap is infuriating, unfair and at times incomprehensible, one should always consider the upside: there’s never been a better time to buy.